Heartless City (2013) Review (Final)

Character

According to Williams, characters in a melodrama seem to be psychically based on, and anthropomorphic embodiments of the Manichaean split between good and evil (77). If it is not clear by now that this is not true of Heartless City, let me just drive the point home by looking at some of the main characters in the series before looking at the presentation of the victim-hero’s perspective in Heartless City.

The first line of complication comes from how, as a whole, the series seems to create more compelling ‘bad guys’ than ‘good guys.’ From the Madame Jin-sook, to the mid-level drug cartel enforcer Safari Moon, to Baksa Aduel’s loyal and decidedly amoral right-hand man, Hyun-soo – these are characters who are given more air time on the show and whose motivations are clearly delineated. They are given flashback sequences and developed as rounded characters. Conversely, we hardly know anything about Hyeong-min’s past nor any of the police officers in the Special Branch taskforce. Thus the diegesis of the film and the formal structure seems to encourage audiences to identify with the ‘bad guys’ more than the ‘good guys.’

Even main antagonists like Chairman Cho, Commissioner Min, the corrupt Senator and Head of Prosecutors remind Baksa Aduel that even if he removes them, it doesn’t remove the seat in the criminal organization they occupy and that ultimately, everyone’s replaceable. I suppose that’s why the series is called Heartless/Cruel City, it’s because the source of evil is not the individual person but something larger, something systemic, and this runs contrary to Manichaean characterization of characters. Yet, at the same time fulfills the function of Manichaean characters, which is to portray virtuous suffering so that virtue may be recognized and acknowledged (66).

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I guess the most compelling reason why the use of Manichaean characterization is not a major feature in Heartless City is due to the main character himself – Baksa Aduel (Doctor’s Son) a.k.a. Jung Shi-hyun. When it comes to the treatment of the victim-hero, Williams says that emphasis is given to the character’s point of view so that we may better empathise with the virtue of the suffering victim-hero (66). This, however, is atypical of Heartless City. Instead, the character appears opaque and we are seldom shown what he is really thinking. This is especially true of the first part of the series and instead of alienating the audience, the lack of information and screen time given to Baksa Aduel draws audiences further in.

Just to share a little bit about my own reaction to this k-drama, the first episode was fast losing my attention and interest until this scene about 30 minutes into the episode where Baksa Aduel has to explain to Scale why he still hasn’t handed over the drug money. Scale greets him by throwing a whiskey glass at him, which he dodges effortlessly. Scale dares him to dodge again and breaks a second glass over his head as he stands there unflinchingly with a trickle of blood rolling down the side of his face.

I wish I could show you a clip of this because my description of the scene really doesn’t do it justice.

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Perhaps it’s the way the energy in the scene goes from 0 to 100 in just a couple of seconds. The stillness in the dining room is almost tableau-like in a pulled out establishing shot, the tense atmosphere set by the ominous soundtrack, Baksa’s slow traversing of the large room captured in a tracking shot, then suddenly a quick cut to Scale flinging of the glass and another cut to Baksa stepping out of the way as the glass shatters against the wall.

Suddenly, I was paying attention again. And when he took the abuse from Scale so coolly, I wanted to know more about what made this character tick.

It’s almost as if the character’s tight, almost absurd control of his own emotions becomes the form of excess one comes to expect in a melodrama. And it’s seen again in this next scene where after having to watch a childhood friend get shot right in front of him, he can’t even visit her grave because she was a cop and to the rest of the world, he is a crime boss.

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Audience desire to know more about the character aside, you never really get any direct information about who this character is or what his motivations are and the narrative seems to sidestep this by giving you snippets of his past not through his eyes but through Safari’s, Kyung-mil’s, and Commissioner Min’s flashbacks of their shared past.

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It’s not until much later in the series where another kind of excess in the character of Baksa Aduel begins to come to the fore. The excess of identity. Being both ‘good’ guy as undercover cop and ‘bad’ guy as crime boss and friend to both Jin-sook and Hyun-soo, this excess of identity becomes a flip on the Manichaean characterisation of characters found within melodramas. In the intense scene above, we see the character losing hold of who he is as his handler calls him Shi-hyn and, in a burst of action, he turns around and grabs him by his coat lapels and insists he be called Baksa Aduel instead.

To have both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ embodied in the character by way of this secret identity as undercover cop who has been undercover in excess of 4 years, only serves to make his character motivations even more ambiguous because you start to wonder, as he grows more and more disillusioned with the extent of the corruption (his own handler is one of the key villains), whether he is still acting as an undercover cop first and crime boss, and friend to Jin-sook and Hyun-soo, second.

As a parting shot about this character of ambiguous moral stance, let me leave you with this picture of Baksa Aduel and Hyun-soo looking out over the city as Baksa delivers this classic Übermensch line:

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“Soo ah… See those streets? Let’s swallow them.”

 

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Heartless City (2013) Review Cont’d

Time and Excess

Manipulation of time within the melodrama in terms of the constant negotiation between being ‘too late’ and arriving ‘in the nick of time’ creates the tension between whether the character experiences a paroxysm of pathos or the exhilaration of action (69). And because of this negotiation, moments of high dramatic tension often take on a dual nature wherein the shortness of diegetic time gets prolonged by the formalistic elements of the scene (73), such that seconds within the diegetic world could be presented as minutes in terms of screen time.

Time in Heartless City, however, moves differently. Instead of embodying the immediacy of successful action or failed inaction as suggested by Williams’ choice of phrases “too late” and “in the nick of time,” the dramatic pleasure in the first half of the series comes from the exhilaration of action derived from Baksa Aduel being consistently and comfortably “one step ahead” such that the character appears almost omniscient, while the intense, almost hysterical, paroxysms of pathos in episode 14 & 15 comes from his impotence at being able to affect positive change in a key series of events entrenched in the distant past.

To illustrate what I mean by the character’s omniscience and mastery over potentially disastrous situations I will refer you to 3 dramatic fight sequences in the series that consistently involve Baksa Aduel’s early, unseen and unexpected arrival on scene, resulting in an element of surprise, which he then uses to triumph over his opponents single-handedly.

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In this instance in the first episode, the mid-rank drug dealers, Scale, ‘Meth’ Kim and Halibut, are meeting to discuss a replacement for Baksa Aduel’s position because he had made known his ambition to ascend the ranks within the drug cartel at the start of the episode. Baksa Aduel is the first gangster to arrive on scene putting him in a position to spring a successful ambush on ‘Meth’ Kim, and be the only character to leave the scene unscathed, leaving Hyeong-min’s Special Branch task force in the dust.

In this instance, both the audience and the characters don’t even realize Baksa Aduel is on scene until he reveals himself. This fight is the first time we get a sense of his dualistic nature. As rising crime boss, his goal is to stop the influx of drugs from a competing supplier, and as undercover police officer, his goal is just to stop the inflow of any drugs. There is also a growing sense that this character’s competence and single-handed successes arise not out of proficiency or superiority, but out of necessity because of the isolation that surrounds him due to his dualistic role.

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As we move further and further along into the series, the buffer zone that allows Baksa Aduel to be comfortably “one step ahead” begins to shorten. As it is, this fight is a reaction to an attempt on his romantic-interest’s life and actually forces him to form a partnership with Hyeong-min in order to secure a positive outcome.

This shortening of the temporal buffer zone that attributed a kind of comfort and ease, control and mastery of situation to the character has a direct relation to the second half of the drama where there is a collapse of time whereby the past intrudes on the present and throws the character into a paroxysm of pathos over his own impotence to change past events.

One of the lines of narrative in the series is Baksa Aduel’s deep-seated hatred of the drug trade because he own mother died of an overdose. This is coupled with a side quest to find out who killed his mother. Unfortunately, in episode 14-15, he finds out that he has been misled by his handler into believing that Safari Moon, a father figure of sorts to him, was responsible. Worse still, Safari informs him of his own culpability in his mother’s death by naively ferrying drugs between his mother and Safari for distribution in the neighbourhood in exchange for “errand money.”

The fissure in Baksa Aduel’s composure is built beautifully throughout the 2 episodes in a series of shots reminiscent of women’s dramas from the 50s and 60s that show the character out of sync with himself (the effeminizing of the male body through suffering represented through formalistic elements often associated with a female dominated genre):

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Before finally culminating in an explosive paroxysm of pathos where inner torment finds outward expression when he smashes his own hand with a rock.

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This is an interesting use of action in a melodrama because it is non-productive and brings the character no closer to reclaiming his lost innocence. Instead we see an excess of inner turmoil that can only result in futile and impotent outward action.

However, because of the excess of emotion, the (female?) audience is encouraged to step out of his/her identification with the character such that where we might previously have taken pleasure in identifying with the character’s unflappable nature and mastery of situation, we can now sadistically take pleasure in his pain. Which is why I look like this:

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…when things like that happen. Hence why I continue to repeatedly come back to j/k-drama which spends so much time focused on the male body and encourages audiences to objectify it on several levels:

As sex objects

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As suffering and effeminized male bodies due to physical trauma

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And psychological trauma

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To be a little bit less perverse, let me just tie this back to Williams. All these suffering male bodies seems to also hark back to what Williams says at the start of her essay in defense of melodrama, oftentimes it is not the physical that affects us so and to concentrate on the linear and the logical is a limiting and reductive misrepresentation of human reality that ought to come together with the search for a “fullness of signification.” It’s just that to me, this “fullness of signification” is a different kind of pleasure that one can find in and get from the melodrama in j/k-dramas that keeps me coming back despite their oftentimes, glaring lack of realism.

Sub-point on Romantic Excess or Lack Thereof

On a slightly softer but related note on romance in the series, Heartless City chooses to disengage almost completely from the tension between “too late” and “in the nick of time” which largely characterizes the romance plot in other K-dramas I’ve watched and termed the “will-they-won’t-they,” or in more Singaporean terms, the ai-mai-ai-mai plot line.

The negotiation of whether romantic leads will get together or not coupled with scenes of near-misses and the final consummation of the romantic (sub)plot is completely disregarded and refashioned in Heartless City.

The first time the two characters meet, happens purely by chance. As if to emphasize how passing the encounter is, there isn’t even a meeting of the eyes. Just this fleeting brushing of two lives against each other in the bustling city that is both brief and ephemeral, with all evidence of contact between the two characters quickly dissipating into the ether before either character and the audience even realize how interlinked their lives are.

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This is of course juxtaposed in their extremely melodramatic second encounter where he saves her from an attempted stick-up despite having been all but gutted in a previous altercation only to almost accidentally slit her throat when she tries to help him up. Despite the melodrama though, the brevity of their encounter and the chance-nature of their meetings remain and continue to characterize the overall development of their relationship.

These accidental encounters seem, to me, more intense and more charged with meaning precisely because of their serendipitous nature that constantly leaves the audience wanting more. The absence of the contiguous progression of time to mark the development of their relationship serves to imbue each encounter with an excess of meaning whether it be romantic feeling or carnal desire because there is always the lingering sense that the transient nature of their relationship will take over and dissolve all ties between them. And this, to me, helps to keep audiences more engaged than in the typical K-drama where the characters practically share the same time/space continuum as the drama progresses because they almost invariably end up living together.

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Lastly, the almost non-existent nature of their love affair and empty fuck near the start of the series belies their intimate connection in the dramatic plot over Baksa Aduel’s supposed involvement in the assassination of Soo-min’s big sister, Kyung-mil. This bait-and-switch tactic that exchanges the romance subplot for the actual dramatic plot opens up the narrative by giving the female lead far more to do in terms of interaction with the other characters, particularly Jin-sook, and creates a more rounded characterization for all the characters involved.

On that note, finally, on to character and characterization.

Heartless City (2013) Review Cont’d

Space of Innocence

The space of innocence is clearly rendered as part of the landscape of the past. Foregrounded in sepia-toned flashbacks of how the main character gets his moniker, Baksa Aduel, and his makeshift foster family made out of small-time drug pusher, Safari Moon, and the neighbourhood’s most popular prostitute, Jin-sook, engaging in fairly normal family-oriented activities like playing in the rain and eating ice-cream together, we see these characters as family first, and criminals second. The only hint we have of their criminal connections comes from the intrusion of present troubles on these memories of the past.

As part of the plot, the shades of innocence here are two-fold. On one level, it is the wholeness of this makeshift family unit that has since disintegrated, and on another level it is about the innocence of being lower down the rungs in a crime-ridden world where one doesn’t need to deal with its politics or questions of how deep and how far reaching its corruption goes.

Thus as Baksa Aduel makes his way up the crime ladder uncovering just how deep the corruption goes, he is both moving further and closer to the restoration of a space of innocence. Closer because of his dual nature as rising crime boss but also as undercover police officer on a mission to find the root of the corruption so he can choke it off before it gives succor to another generation of crime bosses; and further because we watch him grow more and more disillusioned as he realizes just how deep the corruption goes.

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It seems almost apt that by the end of the series, we see the narrative come full circle with Soo-min graduating from the police academy in Kyung-mi’s place and Baksa Aduel disappearing into the crowd yet again. But this time instead of starting on his undercover mission, it is to cement the success of his mission as the surviving piece of the criminal organization he spent the whole series dismantling so that even if he cannot return to a space of innocence, the characters who survive him can.

This sort of semi-tragic, and decidedly bittersweet ending in place of a full on happy ending where Soo-min and Shi-hyun (Baksa Aduel’s real name) get to live happily ever after, is the realist concession that Williams calls the 3rd tenet of melodrama.

One thing that I’m not too sure of, because I don’t know S.Korean politics, is that Williams says that “a melodramatic mode [struggles] to ‘solve’ the overwhelming moral burden of having been the “bad guys”… [wherein] The greater the historical burden of guilt, the more pathetically and the more actively the melodrama works to recognize and regain lost innocence” (emphasis mine, 61). So, as an AWOL/”KIA” ex-cop with no hope of a happy ending for himself, Baksa Aduel seems to have successfully stemmed the tide of corruption within the police force by bringing down the corrupt Commissioner Min. But even at the series’ end, there’s an atmosphere of this success being only temporary given the survival of the corrupt senator and Hyeong-min’s (the other male lead who heads a Special Branch looking into corruption within the police force) father, the Head of Prosecutors. And this is where the unreality of melodrama kicks in. The Head of Prosecution has a sudden change of heart after a heart-to-heart talk with Baksa Aduel about fathers and sons and decides to confess his corrupt ways becoming the lynchpin in Hyeong-min’s case.

So it sounds like the melodramatic mode seems to have gone into overdrive by the series’ end and according to Williams this only happens when there’s a great burden of guilt that needs to be resolved or explained away which she calls melodrama’s “compulsion to reconcile the irreconcilable” (75). But again, I don’t know S. Korean politics, and this is just a drama and Williams is just a film critic.

K-Drama Review: Heartless City (2013)

Direct continuation from Previous Post…

Williams goes on to argue that the methods of representation of the ineffable in melodrama come down, almost exclusively, to the excesses in representation of the key figure in the narrative in his or her struggle against time to regain a lost innocence. The protagonist’s journey will take one of two routes – s/he will either become an effeminised body that suffers a paroxysm of pathos or can channel this paroxysm into more virile and action-centred variants of rescue, chase and fight (58). Williams does suggest however, that instead of a fork in the road between virtuous sufferer and active hero, there can be instead a hero-victim and she provides Rambo as an example of such a figure.

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It is in this same vein that I want to approach Heartless City (2013) in my analysis of its main character, the mysterious and extremely charismatic Baksa Aduel (Doctor’s Son), a.k.a. Jung Shi-hyun, to suggest that this series is an atypical melodrama in that it fulfills the overarching demands of a melodramatic mode of story-telling while defying most of the specific 5 tenet structure of the melodrama laid out by Linda Williams in her essay.

However, before I go into that, I want to reshuffle Williams’ 5 tenets of melodrama into 3 key elements. Firstly, here is a brief summary of Williams’ 5 tenets of melodrama:

  1. Melodrama begins, and wants to end in a space of innocence.
  2. Melodrama focuses on victim-heroes and the recognition of their virtue largely by concentrating on the point of view of the victim.
  3. Melodrama appears modern by borrowing from realism, but realism serves the melodramatic passion and action.
  4. Melodrama involves a dialectic of pathos and action – a give and take of ‘too late’ and ‘in the nick of time’ wherein being ‘too late’ results in a paroxysm of pathos and being ‘in the nick of time’ results in the exhilaration of action
  5. Melodrama presents characters who embody primary psychic roles organized in Manichaean conflicts between good and evil.

From these 5 tenets, I would like to regroup them into the following 3 headings. Firstly, “Space of Innocence”; secondly, “Time and Excess”; and Thirdly, “Character” (under which I will discuss Manichaean characters and the victim-hero). I have decided to place less emphasis on realism as a support for modern melodrama because I see this more as a formalist concern that was included to stave off the belittling of this filmic mode of storytelling rather than a true element of melodrama itself. However, that being said, I will touch on this under “Space of Innocence.”

Furthermore, of these 3, I would like to posit that the first tenet regarding the struggle to regain a space of innocence should be privileged above all other elements of a melodrama because the other elements seem to consistently feedback into this attempt to recoup a lost innocence. This is seen in the tension between being ‘too late’ or being ‘in the nick of time’ resulting in either pathos or action which impacts the victim-hero figure whose suffering (pathos) marks him as a moral character and therefore closer to innocence, and whose actions will consistently try to move him closer toward the recuperation of lost innocence. Moreover, Williams’ own opening of her essay posits the “retrieval and staging of innocence” as the ultimate concern of melodramatic narrative trajectory (42).

In Defense of K-drama

Why I continue to watch J & K Drama despite my seemingly obvious disdain for the genre:

As a continuation from my previous post, I wish to explain why, despite sounding like I’m someone who’s really disappointed with the genre as a whole I keep getting drawn back to it, whether it’s k-drama or j-drama, repeatedly. It seems to me that it offers something that’s very different from what I get when I watch an American TV series. There’s a unique quality to it and it provides a completely different kind of satisfaction despite it’s flaws and the leave of absences that realism tends to take, or perhaps, precisely because of it.

In order to legitimize some of the things I want to say, I will be drawing on Linda Williams’ defense of melodrama, “Melodrama Revised,” in which she talks about how melodrama is a much maligned, and assiduously ignored underlying mode of film that encompasses multiple genres because it is associated with an excess of emotions that is commonly associated with feminine behavior (43).

One of the stoutest lines of defense Williams offers for the value of melodrama stems from the unreality of this mode of film. Williams talks about how the excesses of melodrama that characterize it as unreal should not be seen as a weakness of this mode of filmic storytelling, as opposed to more realist genres that put stock in linear, logical and causal explanations for events because implicit in melodrama is the “recognition of the limitations of the conventions of representation” (Christine Gledhill qtd. in Williams, 48). This in turn forces into an aesthetic presence, within the diegetic world of the melodrama, attempts at representing a desire for the “fullness of signification beyond the powers of language to supply” in the search for things like identity, moral/ethical right, a sense of belonging, the greater good, purpose, calling and all that other ineffable stuff that exists on the upper tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that seem frivolous and non-essential but we actually can’t live without.

And we see this in dramatic high points in successful and well-received K-dramas like Personal Taste (2010). For instance in scenes like when Park Kae-In shows up at an architects’ exclusive meet-and-greet on the handsome Jeon Jin-ho’s arm, dressed to the nines to stick it to her ex who left her for another woman; or when she gets pulled into a passionate kiss with the same dude just as she’s about to be humiliated by her boyfriend-stealing, ex-bestfriend – these aren’t just moments of excess because of the romance, but what makes them profoundly romantic is that at the heart of these scenes are moments of self-actualization and self-worth for the character.

Furthermore, just to remove the anti-feminist taint that’s lingering at the back of my throat as I write this, I choose to see these scenes as female-empowering as well because it’s a rare instance where the male lead’s good looks are reduced to a prop to be used in subservience to the female character’s needs; and both character and actor are consumed as image by other characters within the diegesis of the drama and the viewing audience, whereas emotional investment and empathy in the scenes lie squarely with the female lead.

The other defense of melodrama that I found particularly rousing is the observed difference between tragedy and melodrama. Melodrama is typically dismissed because it is seen as manipulative and dealing with silly female emotions (43). However, if one were to assume that consumers of melodrama can also be critical, then “unlike tragedy, melodrama does not reconcile its audience to an inevitable suffering. Rather than raging against a fate that the audience has learned to accept, the female hero often accepts a fate that the audience at least partially questions” (47). This means that while tragedy encourages us to rail against a cruel fate we assume to be true, melodrama just rails against a fate we already mostly know to be false because its emotional excesses always and already indicate a break from reality and therefore a disruption of the suspension of disbelief in audiences.

To draw on some of the series I mentioned in my previous post, how can we possibly mistake the diegetic world for the real world when dramas like My Love from Another Star (2013-2014) feature an alien as a main character and a serial poisoner as the antagonist? And I Can Hear Your Voice (2013) whose main protagonist is a mind-reader? I just think that the force of magical realism is strong with this genre and while there are more realist melodramas in the market which make the distinction between diegetic world and real world a little harder to tell, I have not come into contact with them to be able to provide any sound analysis at this point.

This would suggest that in a melodrama, the audience has more agency than one that goes to see a tragedy and as such, may choose to identify with the character and take pleasure in the uniquely unreal circumstances they get put in, or s/he may choose to step out of his/her identification with the character and treat them as object subject to the audience’s gaze and interpretative whims.

er… this is actually the first part of a 3000++ word document I’m still writing so there’s more! (I’m breaking it up because I don’t think WordPress can handle the word count O_O) Anyway, Wait for it!